2023 budget proposed by the PSTA: higher salaries, zero-emission buses

Plagued by rising costs and falling ridership, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority unveiled the first look at next year’s budget on Wednesday.

The $155.4 million budget for fiscal year 2023, bolstered by federal assistance, aims to increase attendance and move the agency closer to its long-term sustainability goals. The budget also includes union wage increases making PSTA bus operators the highest paid in the state.

About $43.8 million of the budget is for capital expenditures such as new zero-emission buses. The capital budget through 2027 is proposed at $154.5 million, and the agency says it expects no reduction in the number of routes offered over that period.

“Every day we’re looking to save money, cut fat, be more efficient with our transit system,” said Al Burns, PSTA’s director of budget and procurement. He said the agency plans to be “balanced for the next two years” and should be able to maintain its “admittedly limited bus services” and the SunRunner, which is slated to open in September, for the next few years.

The proposed revelation comes at a time when the PSTA is facing a litany of rising costs, impacting everything from the price of workers’ health insurance to bus parts to petrol.

“We encountered many challenges over several months in crafting this budget,” Deborah Leous, the agency’s chief financial officer, said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

The proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year increases by approximately $17 million, or 18%, over the planned expenditures for this year. But the agency expects revenue to rise as well, with higher revenue from tariffs, property taxes and state grants, resulting in a $1.4 million surplus in the operating budget to be transferred to reservations.

The pandemic has hit transit agencies across the country, with cities in Boston at San Francisco cut bus and train services amid falling revenues.

In Tampa Bay, expanding transit has been a tough sell long before the coronavirus. The annual number of passengers traveling on PSTA buses has steadily declined over the past decade and operating expenses per trip have increased.

Ridership has fluctuated in recent months: there was a 3.6% increase in passenger travel from April to May of this year. Some officials say soaring gas prices could prompt some Floridians to get out of their cars and onto buses.

But there were nearly 700,000 fewer passenger trips on the PSTA’s fixed routes from January to May 2022, compared to the same five-month period last year, according to the agency. Data. The agency did not charge rates from March 2020 to early July 2021.

The agency is banking on the SunRunner, Bus Rapid Transit’s first project in Tampa Bay, to attract new riders when it opens this fall.

The Federal Transit Administration is responsible for nearly three-quarters of funding for next year’s PSTA capital budget, which includes the purchase of buses and zero-emission charging equipment, as well as the replacement of some shelters. The city of St. Petersburg is responsible for 0.66% of capital funding.

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With federal funds, the PSTA is expected to purchase 60 electric vehicles over the next five years, a move the agency says will reduce fuel and maintenance costs in the long run.

Earlier this year, four Tampa Bay mayors were asked to explain how the region should respond to climate change. They all spoke about transportation, emphasizing the importance of an efficient and accessible public transportation system to help reduce vehicle emissions.

PSTA board members will review the proposed budget over the summer. Public hearings will take place in September.

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